Department Blog

Sociology Commencement Address

Thursday, May 22, 2014 - 2:30pm
"May you live in interesting times”:  It was a curse to the Chinese when China was a traditional, slow-changing agrarian society; for them, change usually meant chaos.  For us it’s a challenge – we eat change for breakfast and we have to – we live in a world of accelerating technological and other kinds of change, amid growing uncertainty.

I suggest that your major, Sociology, can help you in this fast-changing world and that it’s like an all-terrain vehicle that aids you to navigate both the spectacular scenery and the perilous pitfalls of a world that is being transformed at dizzying speed. But your Sociology major also enables you to explore the greatest range of fascinating problems.  In other words, Sociology encompasses everything from the macro to the micro levels of society and the connections between them.  It considers the “big picture” issues such as war and peace and inequality and equality, all in the context of a globalizing world economy and world ecology.  But it also considers the taken-for-granted reality of everyday life, what we might call the “Sociology of Seinfeld,” the micro level of how we live.  More importantly, it illuminates the links between these two realms, between the larger forces and your own day-to-day life as well as ultimate destiny.  

In fact, one of the best-known statements in Sociology is the late C. Wright Mills’ dictum that we live our lives “at the intersection of history and social structure.”  Both history and social structure affect your life chances, whether you’re aware of them or not.  Thanks to your Sociology major, you’re more aware than the average person – and this will help you to get ahead of the curve.   Indeed, some of you might make history or help change the social structure, for the better, of course, perhaps exercising your “sociological imagination” (another of Mills’ well-known expressions). More on this later.

To begin, let’s consider history: As I tell my students, visualize a “history box” with at least three important variables inside. First, you’ll have learned the crucial importance of the state of the economy at critical stages of your life; for example, the time when you first use your new diploma to enter the labor market.  If the economy is good when you graduate, you can go boldly and quickly to enter the labor force; jobs will be plentiful.  But neither the economy nor the job market have fully recovered from the Great Recession. And opportunities for this year’s grads have been described as not so terrific. So you might use what you have learned in Sociology – and stay in school as a part-time or full-time grad student, or take a year to be go back-backing or Teach for America. Or take two years and join the Peace Corps (as I did – and it totally transformed my life).  Taking this “time out” when the job market is poor is a very good idea. This is because the state of the economy when you enter the labor market affects not just your own prospects but the lifelong success and earnings of your entire graduation and labor market cohort.

Second, technology is also very important and it is changing so fast that without you your parents might never program or operate half the equipment that seems to multiply while we sleep.  Not only the new knowledge and innovations but also where they are developed and where they are produced will impact your lives.  So, too, will social movements, the third variable in our “history box.” The keystone movements include those for greater equality and tolerance – civil rights, the women’s movement and the more recent emergence of an expanded definition of equality that includes gay rights and gay marriage as well as disability rights.  But there are also movements that promote less equality and greater intolerance and even terror – and Sociology again gives you a handle on sorting out these issues as well as how they might affect you and what actions you can take to cope and come out ahead. 

C. Wright Mills considered social structure, our “second box,” to be just as important as history:  Your place in the social pyramid or the larger pyramid of political economy also has a profound effect.  How carefully you “chose your parents for social class,” your race/ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, education, etc. – all these affect your life chances.  So, too, does the fact that the U.S. is moving into a new information age in a globalizing world.  Whether the new information economy jobs are multiplying more in Northern Virginia than in Southern India could have lifelong consequences for your future.  An active and well-trained sociological imagination helps to keep you ahead of this curve, too. 

But let me stress: you already have accomplished much in getting here today and many of you will go on to accomplishments that will affect history or the social structure.  

Whether you end up in graduate school, law school, business school, med school or a career in the near future, your Sociology major has given you a “sociological imagination.”  J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, emphasized the importance of imagination in her 2008 commencement address at Harvard. She decried those who prefer not to exercise their imaginations, “never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are…clos[ing] their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally.” 

Sociology has given you tools to stretch your imaginations and also to cope with today’s “interesting times,” regardless of your ultimate profession or occupation.  As you march from the beauty of Mr. Jefferson’s University, the only UNESCO World Heritage university site in the U.S., to what I hope will be a bright future (and choosing the University of Virginia gives you a leg up on a good future), your Sociology major should be a help.  It will aid you to observe power, analyze cultural practices and organizational patterns.  It will help you to meet the multiple challenges of living in interesting times – and to prevail.  Congratulations and good luck!

Rae Lesser Blumberg
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Culture @ Virginia

Wednesday, May 7, 2014 - 3:15am
The following brief essay appeared in the American Sociological Association’s Culture Section Newsletter.  There’s no promotion like a self-promotion!  Of course, given the audience, the essay makes a particular case from a particular angle, and the story of our department could surely be told from other perspectives.  I hope we will do so in the future!

Culture @ Virginia
Jeff Olick

The history of sociology at the University of Virginia is yet to be written.  But surely any such account would include the centrality of culture in the past work of the department as well as the importance of UVA to cultural sociology as a whole. James Hunter’s Culture Wars, Sharon Hays’ The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, Murray Milner’s Status and Sacredness: these major, prize-winning contributions were all written in Charlottesville. Other cultural sociologies produced in the department include: Sarah Corse’s Nationalism and Literature, Allison Pugh’s Longing and Belonging, Krishan Kumar’s The Making of English National Identity, Rachel Rinaldo’s Mobilizing Piety, and my own The Politics of Regret, among others with cultural relevance.

We are a small to midsized department that nonetheless tries to cover a variety of areas, including education, inequality, law, religion, family, immigration, development, and economic sociology.  But our identity has always included a strong interest in, and contributions to, cultural sociology, and culture has long been a central focus of our departmental plans.

Sociology and anthropology at UVA were separated in the early 1970s, when Ted Caplow led the department, and Ted’s follow-ups to the Lynd’s Middletown studies, among his enormous number of other works, focused on community and culture.  In the seventies and eighties, Jeff Hadden’s work on religion, and in particular on cults, was of obvious relevance to cultural sociology.  For a short number of years, Lewis Feuer’s philosophical perspectives shaped the work of a number of graduate students and colleagues.  While he is not a cultural sociologist by any strict definition, Gianfranco Poggi’s Weberian state theory was also important to the life of the department in the late 80s and early 90s.

Since the early 1990s, culture has been an overriding concern for the department, and various mission statements have made this explicit.  For years, all graduate students were required to take either culture or stratification, and while the historical data are not at hand, it is likely more graduate students have taken comprehensive exams in culture and have identified as cultural sociologists than any other subject.  And the interest in culture has shaped our hiring over the last two decades as well.  Following my own arrival nearly ten years ago, we have been joined by Andrea Press, Allison Pugh, Simone Polillo, Rachel Rinaldo, Sabrina Pendergrass, and (in the Fall) Miranda Waggoner, in addition to Josipa Roksa and Adam Slez beyond culture. Coupled with new financial support from the University in recognition of our growing achievements, cultural sociology at Virginia is on an upward trajectory.

Cultural sociology, of course, like sociology itself, is hardly a unified enterprise.  So it is perhaps most accurate to say that members of the department pursue a wide variety of exciting cultural sociologies. Sarah Corse focuses on the sociology of art and literature; Simone Polillo works at the intersection of cultural and economic sociology; Katya Makarova works on cities and culture, as well as on consumption; Allison Pugh investigates the interplay of culture, family, and economic activity; Sabrina Pendergrass works on race, region and symbolic boundaries; Rachel Rinaldo is an ethnographer of women’s agency; James Hunter has an extensive research program on character and culture; Stephan Fuchs has worked on science and knowledge as well as on the intersections among cultural, network, and systems theory; Krishan Kumar has recently been working on empire; and my own work has focused not only on collective memory, but more recently on suffering and the origins of meaning.

But we are more than just a collection of individual cultural scholars, we have also been actively cultivating the synergies that make for a vibrant intellectual atmosphere.   With the support of the UVA provost, among other places, Allison Pugh has been running an interdiscplinary field methods workshop with colleagues from anthropology, music, and education, which hosted Sherry Ortner this year, and will welcome Annette Lareau next year.  In the past two years, Jeff Alexander, Robin Wagner-Pacifici, Abigail Saguy, Jonathan Rieder, Stephen Vaisey and Isaac Reed have also visited as part of our seminar series, and Isaac will be spending part of the coming year visiting the department.  With Andrea Press and two anthropologists, Allison is also organizing a year-long series of lectures on intimacy, which will include sociologists like Paula England, and cultural theorists such as Eva Illouz and Rosalind Gill.  We have an active work-in-progress seminar featuring work by faculty and students that meets periodically to exchange ideas, and students meet monthly in an ethnography workshop to present and support interpretive research.

A particularly important resource for the department is the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture run by James Hunter, along with Joe Davis.  The Institute is an extraordinarily well-endowed interdisciplinary center exploring “contemporary cultural change and its individual and social consequences,” as its mission statement puts it; IASC not only supports a large number of pre-doctoral, doctoral, and post-doctoral fellows, but also publishes The Hedgehog Review, as well as hosting internationally renowned sociologists like Hans Joas, Richard Sennett, and Phil Gorski (all just in the last two years).  The department and the Institute work closely together on these and other events, and the department benefits from the Institute’s unusual resources and connections, to say nothing of its gorgeous space.

Another significant institutional structure worth mentioning is the sociology department’s strong collaboration with the Media Studies department.  The most direct connection in this regard is Andrea Press, who holds a partial appointment in both units, and who works with a large number of students, in particular on media audiences.  Media Studies does not currently have a graduate program of its own, so it has often hired sociology students as teaching assistants, as well as supported their interests in media.  In the next couple of years, we may well pursue a joint program in media sociology, which is already represented by a graduate seminar Andrea offers.

Overall, the graduate program in sociology at UVA is doing extremely well, thanks in part to a major revamping a few years ago, in which we stopped admitting unfunded students, and increased our support to the individuals we do admit.  Now we fund between six and eight new students a year going forward; our funding package is competitive with—and in many cases superior to—our public competitors.   This institutional change has also had important cultural ramifications, as Virginia graduate students have fostered a markedly collaborative atmosphere of solidarity that counters the storied alienation of graduate student life.  Put simply, our graduate students support each other.

The major reason we were able to convince UVA’s administration to provide us with increased resources was that our record of student achievement has indeed been extraordinary over the last decade.  Our students have published sole-authored papers in journals included The American Sociological Review, Sociological Theory, Social Forces, Gender and Society, Poetics, and Sociological Forum, among many others.  They secure funding from national sources for their work, such as the National Science Foundation (twice for cultural projects). In regard to culture, it is important to note that both first place in the Culture Section’s student paper prize last year went to our student (now Ph.D.) Christina Simko, while the honorable mention went to another of our students, Ben Snyder (now also Ph.D.).  Both Christina and Ben’s dissertation books have already been accepted for publication with Oxford University Press.  Jen Silva, another of our extraordinary graduates, has published her work in ASR and elsewhere, as well as had her book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, published by Oxford.  Matthew Hughey, now associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, published his dissertation book, White Bound: Nationalists, Antiracists, and the Shared Meanings of Race, with Stanford.  And this list just scratches the surface of a very deep pool of extraordinary graduate student achievements.  

Part of this record of impressive graduate student achievement reflects our improved support, but, again, part of it is also due to a palpable culture of intellectual cooperation. We have a departmental culture that works in myriad ways to support cultural sociology, including workshops, guest speakers, and a spirit of collegiality among faculty and students. Faculty co-author with graduate students, students collaborate on independent research projects, scholars serve as co-PIs on grants, there is an active flow of papers among scholars commenting on each other’s work – the intellectual life is bubbling here, with much of it centered on cultural sociology in its many forms.

Virginia, in sum, is a terrific place to do cultural sociology, for both faculty and graduate students.  Yes, Cultural Sociology, there is a Virginia!

Jeff Olick
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Let’s Connect!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 - 11:30am
The new age is upon us—has been for years, but we are catching up. 24-7, always connected, never off-line.  I am, I admit, quite ambivalent about this, as any sane person must be.  In reviewing old department files, I’ve discovered how it used to be.  Before email, the business of the college was conducted on 8.5 x 5.5 inch half-page memo forms, hand-written, and apparently messengered all over grounds by a series of runners. More distant communication required, wait for it… letters: typed, folded, licked, stamped, and mailed.

Sociology Message FormHow wearisome.  Answers could take weeks.  We can now accomplish more, communicate more, in the course of a day than we used to in a month.  At the same time, it’s exhausting. On a normal day, one can easily receive more than a hundred emails, from every corner of the world.  And many of them seem to require an immediate response.  Woe to the department chair, colleague, teacher, committee member who doesn’t respond within hours.  And actually, the woe is fully upon oneself, since shutting off the stream or taking a break means increased pain later.

But here we are, virtually anyway.  With the launch of our new website, with a Facebook page, a departmental Twitter account, an (as yet unpopulated) YouTube channel (stay tuned), and now this blog, the UVA sociology department has fully entered the postmodern age.  Better late than never! And we seem to be ahead of many others, at least in the hidebound world of academia.

My hope with this blog, as with all the other social media presence, is to generate a greater sense of intellectual community—connectivity literally and figuratively. I’ve often yearned for more debate with students and colleagues: in the department, about the department, and for the department; about UVA and about sociology; and about how all these topics are intertwined.  I hope this will allow it, though, again, I am not unwary.  There is the irony that this form of writing (and hopefully commenting) is more casual than publication, yet in some ways just as— perhaps even more—permanent.  Nothing one has ever put on the internet is completely anonymous, completely forgotten, much as it might be entirely forgettable. Does one want an archive of ancient disagreements?  Probably not.  One should also not forget Walter Benjamin’s argument in “The Storyteller”— my favorite critical essay of all time—about the distinction between wisdom and information, and about the lost value of boredom (Langweile—perhaps better translated as slowness or duration): “Boredom is the dream-bird that hatches the egg of experience…”  Thinking takes time, wisdom requires thought, hence, by extrapolation, social media cannot be good for culture.

140 characters cannot substitute even for a brief conversation (or is it now a “convo”?) in the hallway.  And no blog should supplant carefully reasoned, well-written, tested, and revised presentation and argumentation.  But while Twitter leaves me personally cold when people try to use it for more than announcements, I have in fact been impressed by the quality of debate and intellectual ferment on sociology blogs like Orgtheory or Scatterplot, to say nothing of our own grad-student run Fifth Floor.  So I hope you will join me in optimism for this experiment.

How will it work?  For the time being, I will get things going.  I will write about issues of concern to me, to the department, to sociology, to the college… whatever motivates me to write. I hope people will comment and respond (politely!).  Down the not-too-long road, I may ask others to post (or feel free to volunteer).  And we’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to get in touch privately or publicly with suggestions (though fair warning: good suggestions may be met with the counter-suggestion that the suggester take responsibility for implementing them!). For now, welcome, and thanks for reading.

Jeff Olick
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